SAFETY; cleanliness; mobility; spaciousness; connectivity; equity. These, said former minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew in a 2013 interview with the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), are the ingredients of a good city, and Singapore has all of them today.
But 50 years ago, urban Singapore would have scored zero on that list.
“50 years ago, Singapore was a basket case of urbanisation gone wrong. Overcrowding, traffic congestion, flooding, crime, no proper sanitation – name any urban problem and we had it,” says Khoo Teng Chye, executive director of the CLC, who served with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) from 1976 to 1996, the last four years as its CEO and chief planner.
The creation of modern Singapore from that state of squalor took three decades and was driven by two key agencies: the Housing & Development Board (HDB) and later, the URA. The HDB was set up in 1960 with the mandate of properly housing the population, resettling thousands from the slums that predominated the urban landscape in those years. In 1964, to complement its work in public housing, it created the Urban Renewal Unit to redevelop the central parts of Singapore for commercial use. Later on, the unit was restructured first as a department, and then, in 1974, converted to an independent statutory board – the URA – with more manpower and funding to handle the huge job.
Bringing order to the city
Throughout the 1970s, the URA’s work centred around implementing the first Concept Plan, which had been developed in 1971 with the help of the United Nations. The Concept Plan covered many areas, from population growth to town planning, road planning and transport systems, and the port and airport. It was a huge, multi-agency effort coordinated by the Ministry of National Development (MND).
“The Concept Plan required a lot of additional detailed and specific information for the purpose of implementation,” recalls Liu Thai Ker, who headed the HDB and then the URA from the 1970s to the 1990s and is today known as the architect of urban Singapore for his work on public housing. From large-scale land development agencies like HDB and the Jurong Town Corporation, to water management agencies like the Public Utilities Board (PUB), each agency had to provide its plans to the MND in detail and declare their land use needs for incorporation into the Concept Plan.
“We were hungry for jobs and investors, but also very fortunate that our leaders avoided the approach of develop first and clean up later,” says Mr Khoo. “To me, the important thing is that our transformation to a liveable and sustainable city is something that has been brought about because of good governance and an integrated approach to planning.”
However, the Concept Plan called for the population to be moved outwards to new satellite towns surrounding the central water catchment area, connected by expressways and a MRT system, and for the vacated land to be developed into a financial and business centre. In practice, that meant relocating hundreds of thousands of residents, dozens of industries and hundreds of businesses.
Putting a roof over the population’s head
“Some of the squatters would turn nasty and set their dogs on us. We carried umbrellas to defend ourselves; at worst we ran for it. Sometimes we even had to get the police to escort us,” recalls Loh Yan Hui, the deputy chief executive officer of Surbana International Consultants, who joined the HDB’s Building and Development Division as a civil engineer in the late 1970s.
Mr Loh and his colleagues were among the government officers at the forefront of the huge resettlement, and one of the challenges they faced was evicting squatters from rural settlements on the designated town sites. “Many of these squatters were very sentimental about their homes,” says Mr Loh. “No matter how bad the living conditions were, they would bargain with us and ask for more time. We would compromise and clear other areas first, but inevitably we had to come back and make them leave.”
Then, the HDB had to house a population of 1.7 million in as short a time as possible, and it had been given all the powers it needed to do so. The speed of building and resettlement ramped up through the 1960s. By the 1970s, HDB was building 50,000 units a year.
“We saw, in the rural areas of Singapore, a very dramatic transformation of the physical landscape over the course of just 5 to 10 years,” says Mr Loh. “It succeeded because HDB took a multi-disciplinary approach and had been given a very strong mandate.”
Each new town was built according to a template that hung in the HDB headquarters at Bukit Merah. The template dictated where arterial roads should be placed, how the land should be divided into neighbourhoods and precincts, and even where facilities such as schools should be placed.
“In the early 1970s, there was no clear definition of what a new town should be or what a neighbourhood entailed,” says Dr Liu. “It was through our research, interviews and learning from other countries that we found out that for each new town to be highly self-sufficient, complete with essential facilities and amenities, we needed a population size of around 200,000 people.”
Dr Liu and his fellow planners carried out similar research for neighbourhoods and even precincts, complete with input from estate officers, sociologists, and engineers. By the late 1980s, the last of the squatters would have been resettled, and HDB’s quest to house the population would be complete.
Keeping Singapore flood-free
As Singapore was developing its new towns, it was also coping with flood problems. “In those days, when the rains came and coincided with the high tide, whole kampungs would be covered with water right up to the roofs,” says Yap Kheng Guan, former senior consultant and senior director at the PUB. “Long stretches of road would be unusable for hours and even days until the floods subsided.”
Mr Yap, who joined the Ministry of Environment’s drainage department in 1975 as a civil engineer and spent the next 25 years working on Singapore’s drainage, recalls that the ongoing urbanisation of those decades added to the flood problems. Each new development, whether public housing or industrial, increased the runoff into an already overloaded drainage system. Some of the most notoriously flood-prone areas were Bukit Timah, Geylang Serai and Potong Pasir.
“In the 1960s, Bukit Timah Road and Dunearn Road were the primary trunk roads – the expressways had not been built yet – and there were schools all along the area,” Mr Yap says. “Each time it flooded, everything was disrupted. Something had to be done, but there was not enough money at the time. Singapore was just too poor.”
One diversion canal had been built in 1969, but it was not until 1986 that construction began on a second canal. Like its predecessor, the second diversion canal was built with only basic equipment and methods. Lacking today’s tunnelling and shoring technology, Mr Yap and his fellow engineers had to blast the four-kilometre canal from Swiss Cottage Estate to the Kallang River through soft and damp soil that hindered construction of the canal’s concrete walls. In 1991 the canal was finally completed, and joined hundreds of other large and small drainage projects that reduced Singapore’s flood-prone areas by 90 per cent.
The PUB had an entirely different water issue: that of ensuring a clean water supply to the population. In the 1960s, the waterways were notoriously polluted, such that the cleanup of the Singapore River and the Kallang Basin in the late 1970s and 1980s took 10 years and made the Anti-Pollution Unit famous.
As with the urban redevelopment effort, cleaning up the waterways took a massive cross-agency effort. Lee Ek Tieng, the former chairman of the PUB and one of the 10 civil servants involved in the cleanup, told the National Environment Agency in a 2011 dialogue that the success of the endeavour came from providing alternatives through infrastructure: building proper sanitation and garbage removal systems for both households and businesses.
In the early years, Singapore had only three local water sources: the MacRitchie Reservoir, the Kallang River Reservoir (later known as the Peirce Reservoir), and the Seletar Reservoir. The PUB spent the next three decades constructing 10 more reservoirs. Later, in the 1990s, the PUB’s approach would expand in an attempt to make water integral not just to life but to lifestyles.
In those years, the PUB was also responsible for getting Singapore’s electricity and gas supplies going. Pasir Panjang Power Station was one of the earliest power stations owned by the PUB, operating on 60 megawatt turbines installed by Hitachi in 1962 and 1964; later in the same decade, it would be joined by Jurong Power Station, running the same power generation system. Subsequent power stations also utilised Hitachi systems down to the 1990s, including the Seraya and Tuas Power Stations.
Turning points great and small
The modernisation and development of Singapore from the 1960s to the 1990s is marked by dozens of triumphs. Some, like the cleaning up of the Singapore River, have entered legend; others, like the closing of the last night soil station in 1987, went unnoticed except by the government officers involved in implementing the sewer system.
“There was no great fanfare, but the senior officers from the department lined up along the road that led to the night soil station to welcome back the last night soil wagon,” says Tan Gee Paw, the former chairman of PUB who led the effort to clean up the Singapore River in the 1980s and is today known as the master architect of Singapore’s water supply. In a 2014 interview with the CLC, he recounted: “It was a significant event which I clearly remember because it meant that every home, every block, every premise in Singapore has been sewered successfully. It was a massive effort that took 10 to 20 years to accomplish and we were probably the first in Asia to be able to do so.”
For Dr Liu, who today chairs the CLC’s Advisory Board, the turning points in public housing were marked every decade: in the 1960s, when the government committed itself to solving the housing shortage problem in the shortest possible time; in the late 1970s, when the housing shortage was finally brought under control; and in 1985, the year he feels that Singapore as a whole became a modern metropolis. “We can summarise our achievements then by the following four phrases: No Squatters, No Homeless, No Poverty Ghettos, No Ethnic Enclaves,” he says.
To Mr Khoo, heading the URA in the 1990s, the turning point came when the various government agencies were finally able to step back from immediate action and begin institutionalising their work. “Up to the late 80s, we were very action-oriented. Our focus was on delivering the housing programmes as quickly and efficiently as possible,” he explains. “It was only around the early 1990s, after infrastructure was no longer an urgent need, that we became more systematic: reviewing the Concept Plan and the Masterplan, restructuring the bureaucracy to place URA in charge of overall planning.”
The 1990s was also when many other agencies were restructured and consolidated: for example, the Land Transport Authority was formed in 1995 from the merger of four other public sector entities that had previously worked separately on road building and maintenance and vehicle registration.
Ultimately, however, the very first turning point for Singapore’s modernisation was that of political will: giving the agencies responsible for development all the support they needed, whether in terms of resources or legislation, at a time when the population was willing to accept the changes involved. As former minister mentor Lee said in his interview with CLC: “I’m pleased that we redeveloped the city when there was a chance to do it.”
This is the first of a three-part series brought to you by Hitachi, in collaboration with Singapore Institute of Building Limited, and with resource assistance from Centre for Liveable Cities Singapore. The next part, Building a Nation: Today, will be published on Aug 5.